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John Currin: A Conservative Provocateur

John Currin: A Conservative Provocateur
The Bra Shop, 1997 © John Currin courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

When I first saw a painting by John Currin, I thought: What is this supposed to mean? Why are the figures so ridiculous? Why does he paint like that? Is he serious?


He definitely is. Being asked he answers, 'I simply stopped caring what modernity would think about me.'


In his home, he grew up worshipping art like deKooning or van Gogh. When he was 20 years old he found it strange that the early 1980s art scene did not care about this kind of art anymore. He says, 'I know why minimal art is good – but it bores the hell out of me!'


At that time his work was way out of line. 'You can either provoke by disrespecting content or by disrespecting form. At that time I was looking for attention.'


Currin admits that his painting is reactive. 'My painting takes the progression out of the art. The classic progressive dogma of modernism is a limitation of aesthetics - if not more.'


He takes a number of old master techniques and applies them one beside the other within one painting: 'In the bra shop painting of 1997 there is a little Courbet in the face and a little Florentine painting at the breast.'


Besides his wife Rachel and his son Francis, many symbols from art history seem to reappear in Currin’s paintings. Currin claims, that many of the symbols in his paintings are instincted: 'You like some things and they mean something to you - and so you leave them in the painting.'


The Dane, 2006 © John Currin courtesy Gagosian Gallery

His technical abilities are quite impressive - but why these strange figures? Where are they from?


The material, he did start with, were advertisement photos and cartoons from the 1930s. He tried to make them ironic or 'heroic', yet upon a perfect background. His aim was not to make a special person recogniceable – he wanted to have them 'look silly at first sight'.


Some read these paintings as s critique on contemporary society and life style. However, Currin himself does not think that he was very successful in doing that.


Instead, he focuses on the 1980s, when he just started. At that time painting was considered something only stupid people do. And so he trained himself in doing what stupid people did. I read these paintings as an ironic critique on the rational and unemotional minimal art of this time.


Other, the porn series: It was not made after contemporary porn, but from porn magazines of the 1970s. Today, these photos may look somehow 'silly at first sight' too. He views these paintings as a chance to make 'really really good paintings' from these  pornography photos. This series is not about provocation. He tried to take this rather disgusting photo material and make a beautiful painting out of it. 'I enjoyed to indulge my romantic side as a painter.'


Mr. Currin says, he does not think that anyone would be turned on by looking at a painting of sex. Well, for his porn series I do agree totally.


By U. G. L., 2008


Rodney Graham: 'Lenz Reading Machine for Lenz' 1993, Collectió MACBA. Fundació Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Dipósit particular, (c) Rodney Graham 2009
Angelo Volpe: 'He kept silent', 2009, oil on canvas, 100 x 70 x 2 cm (c) by the artist


Betty, 15-04-09 22:13
Once I passed the first impression of Currin's images I started to like his work:

It is painted in a very clever way!

joseph, 28-06-12 00:59
Mr. Currin is a pompous ass who can't really draw, can't really paint, and whose public statements are fatuous. Talk about getting lucky...
wccsffey, 11-10-12 14:33

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